Sara GoldchmitA special FAPESP program that has raised the quality of hundreds of scientific publications in Brazil has had a notable impact on the increase in international visibility of Brazilian research over the last 14 years. Launched in 1997 with a group of 10 Brazilian journals, by the end of 2011 the Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) program had reached 239 publications from all fields of knowledge, which generated a monthly average of 36 million articles being openly accessed and downloaded for free from the Internet – 1.2 million a day. The periodicals are only admitted to the collection after they have been scrutinized to prove their quality, like the existence of a qualified editorial body, their relevance in their field of knowledge, the diligent regularity of the publication and its compliance with a series of technical standards that govern international scientific communication. “The program created a virtuous circle, in which the journals gained recognition and started to be constantly concerned about their quality,” says Rogério Meneghini, the library’s scientific coordinator.
The success of this model can be measured by two of its results. The first relates to the increase in participation of Brazilian journals in international databases. By encouraging the publications to follow quality standards the SciELO program helped many of them qualify to be included on databases, like Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science (WoS), and publishing company Elsevier’s Scopus, which are used as an international parameter for the scientific production of countries and the impact thereof. The number of Brazilian periodicals on the WoS database incased from 30 titles in 2007 to 134 in 2011. This inclusion meant that Brazil jumped from 15th place to 13th in the ranking of worldwide scientific production of countries by reason of indexed articles, which increased in this period. There is no doubt that the interest of databases in selling their products to emerging countries like ours also had a role to play in this. Today the SciELO library shares 94 of its titles with the WoS and 173 with Scopus.
The second result has to do with the international propagation of the concept of the library, which is disclosed with open and free access, unlike the scientific editorial market in developed countries, which charge for consulting the articles they publish. Following Brazil, 12 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, in addition to Portugal, Spain and South Africa, have created their own SciELO libraries. The network has two thematic collections, in public health and social sciences, and is preparing for another on biodiversity. “SciELO has consolidated its position as the most important scientific publication program in developing and emerging countries and is recognized internationally as one of the most prominent in the open access movement,” says Abel Packer, the program’s operational coordinator.
The library first appeared in 1997 with the dual objective of improving Brazilian journals and creating methods for measuring the importance and impact of the articles published by the country’s researchers. One of the challenges discussed at the time was to rescue the so-called “lost science of the Third World,” a concept proposed in 1995 in an article in the journal, Scientific American, by W. Wayt Gibbs. He referred to the non-indexed science on international databases, but that was of great regional interest, above all in areas like public health, agriculture and education.
The scientific coordinator of SciELO Brazil, Rogério Meneghini, at the time the assistant coordinator of FAPESP’s Scientific Department, was looking for a way of creating a system of indicators that would help the Foundation assess Brazilian scientific publications, the majority of which were not indexed on international databases. Abel Packer, a specialist in information science and an executive at the Latin American and Caribbean Center for Information in Health Sciences (Bireme), was discussing at the time the means for publishing scientific periodicals online and with open access. “I remember we were talking about our proposals at a lunch hosted by Professor Lewis Greene, who was president of the Brazilian Association of Scientific Editors (Abec). We saw that the ideas complemented each other and we prepared a pre-project that was approved by FAPESP,” recalls Packer. Meneghini say that some journal editors who took part in the project were afraid of losing their autonomy over their publications, given the quality and methodology demands that had been established. “However, this soon went away because they understood the positive impact on their publications.”
SciELO Brazil grew out of a partnership between FAPESP, which is still responsible for 90% of its funding, and Bireme, which had good accumulated experience in online information and in managing databases. Subsequently, the program also received funds from the Brazilian Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and the Coordinating Office for the Training of Personnel with Higher Education (Capes). Since the creation of the program, the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) has been supporting it with institutional infrastructure, physical facilities and IT. According to Packer, the program offers the periodicals three types of contribution. The first, which has already been referred to, has to do with qualifying the journal. Publications are admitted to the collection after undergoing analysis by SciELO’s scientific committee, which has five representatives from the scientific editors of major areas of knowledge, and four institutional representatives, indicated by FAPESP, CNPq, Capes and Abec – and they are reassessed every year.
“The publications start being organized according to criterion and undergo continuous control of both impact and quality. This makes them more consistent,” says Packer. The second contribution has to do with visibility and access to the periodicals, with the help of the Internet. “The collection gained authority because it developed a system of privileged access.” The metadata of the articles, computer-intelligible information, are publicly accessible via various Internet protocols and services. “By means of these services SciELO interchanges metadata and undertakes interoperability with bibliographic indices, bibliographic databases, search engines, repositories, directories, catalogues, scientific information and Internet products and services,” he says.
The third contribution relates to the increase in impact of the periodicals, measured by citations. Scientia Agricola, edited by the Higher School of Agriculture “Luiz de Queiroz” (Esalq) and by the Center of Nuclear Energy in Agriculture of the University of São Paulo, in Piracicaba, has experienced a continuous increase in its impact factor, which is the average number of citations of scientific articles published in the periodical. The first measurement, disclosed by Thomson Reuters on the Web of Science in 2006, gave the journal an impact factor of 0.3. Last year it reached 0.82. This means that each article published in 2008 was cited almost once in the two subsequent years. “We’re still far from the average impact of the 20 best journals in the area in the world, which is 2.41, but we distinguish ourselves from the average of the 20 best Brazilian journals, which is 0.47,” says Luís Reynaldo Ferracciú Alleoni, a professor from Esalq and the journal’s editor.
The publication has undergone various transformations. Since 2003, it has been fully published in English, getting away from the standard of Brazilian journals in agrarian sciences. There has been an effort to expand the contingent of reviewers, the specialists who assess the articles, from outside the country; today 60% of them are foreign. At the beginning of this decade, just 2% of the authors of articles in Scientia Agricola were of other nationalities; now this figure is 20%. Currently, 68% of the citations of the articles are made in international publications. “The journal has repositioned itself and has a profile that has more international appeal. We considered that what was missing in the country, which carries out high quality agricultural research, was a periodical of this type,” says Alleoni.
Ricardo Lourenço, editor of the century-old journal, Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, points out the increase in visibility of the publication after it entered the collection. “Before, it used to be a long time before the articles were indexed in international databases, like PubMed. We had to wait until the printed edition was distributed and only then were the articles indexed. With SciELO, the repercussion of the articles is immediate,” he states. The impact factor of Memórias is the highest of all scientific publications in Latin America. It reached 2.05 in 2010. In 2000, it was 0.54. “SciELO was the ‘Columbus’s egg’ that transformed the visibility of the science being produced in Brazil,” says Charles Pessanha, editor of the journal, Dados, from the social sciences area, which is edited by the University Research Institute of Rio de Janeiro (Iuperj) and one of the founders of SciELO. “We are deficient in libraries, cinemas, theaters and cultural centers. Distribution was always deficient and when we talk about scientific books, things get worse. SciELO was the tool that transformed this scenario.”
Of course, there is a set of obstacles to overcome over the next few years so that scientific production in the country can improve its quality. If the country is 13th in the ranking of global scientific production, it falls to 38th position when the impact of this production is measured in citations. “It’s an uncomfortable position to be in,” says Packer. “As 60% of the articles are in Portuguese they only receive citations from Brazilian journals.” Among the goals of SciELO for the next few years, the ones that stand out are the efforts being made to internationalize the collection, by encouraging publication in English, and attracting foreign researchers to its editorial team, in addition to reinforcing the management mechanisms of the journals and looking for a new funding model. “The science published in most of the Brazilian periodicals is not the best quality science the country produces. In this case the researchers still prefer to disclose their findings in international periodicals and they are also discouraged from publishing in our journals because of the limitation of the Qualis criteria from Capes for evaluating post-graduate courses,” says Packer. “However, we need to keep on offering our journals the very latest there is in indexation and scientific publication methodologies and technologies.”
An attempt is also being made to expand the funding sources without compromising the free and open access character of the articles. One possibility is to charge authors a fee for publication, as international journals do. Another is to convince other bodies to co-sponsor the program. “The majority of Brazilian states have SciELO journals that publish articles by researchers from all over Brazil, so that in the near future we expect to be able to count on support from research foundations in other states to finance the collection,” he says.Republish